I returned home Wednesday from another long trip to cover the January 28 winter storm in the South. Like the Texas event, this was a very high-impact, high-threat event due to the region of the country it was taking place in. The most significant impacts were in the Atlanta and Birmingham areas. As with the Texas trip, I learned more valuable details about southern US icy roads.
Documenting the event
I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama on Monday afternoon, and spent two nights in hotels in the city. On Tuesday (during the height of the storm) I observed the effects of freezing rain while moving east to Columbus, Georgia. Bridges iced rapidly in the morning in the Montgomery metro area, and caused numerous accidents. Bridges were slow to ice to the east, and authorities were applying brine and sand to many potential trouble spots. I then returned to Montgomery later that night as the changeover to snow occurred. All roads quickly became covered, and a sheet of compacted ice formed. I originally had planned to leave the area on Tuesday night, but the road conditions were too dangerous. I was finally able to exit the storm zone on Wednesday morning by traveling due west to Demopolis, AL, then north to Tupelo, MS.
The impacts from this storm were remarkable. My take on what occurred in Birmingham and Atlanta is this:
One, very light winter precipitation events suffer from perception-versus-reality problems nationwide, not just in the southern US. The light events (as little as trace/dusting) tend to be the highest impact ones, they happen many times during the winter, and result in the bulk of fatal crashes in the US. Most events don't make headlines like the more acutely extreme ones do (as in this case). Case in point, we had a 49-fatality light freezing rain event December 23-24, 2008 across the Midwest that barely made headlines (32 fatal crashes on the 23rd alone). Sub-warning criteria light freezing rain also has shut down or severely impacted the St. Louis and Pittsburgh metro areas in recent years.
'Dustings' of snow routinely cause the worst serious/fatal accident rates of all events in large metro areas in the Midwest and Northeast US. Again, this is a perception problem - light events are seen as 'not that bad' by the public and meteorologists alike. I believe this perception may have contributed to authorities not acting on the forecasted conditions in the areas affected by the worst of the storm.
Two, the southern US has a 'skeleton crew' of de-icing infrastructure. Their current supplies and equipment are only capable of spot-treating small areas with sand (bridges and steep hills), and salt/brine is rarely available in meaningful quantities. Without external help, their infrastructure is hopelessly overwhelmed when the icing spreads beyond bridges.
What I hope comes out of the January 28th storm is a shift in the perception of the lighter winter precipitation events, and possibly notching up the wording and planning for these in terms of their potential impacts. I don't see anyone in particular as being to blame for this recent disaster. Forecasters did their jobs and issued the appropriate products. The light events have traditionally never been thought of in this way by most authorities or the public. A shift in thinking regarding the light winter precip events will help not only future storms in the south, but the ones that impact the rest of the country.
A multi-car pileup occured right in the middle of this scene outside of Prattville/Montgomery, Alabama on Tuesday morning, about 5 minutes after I turned the camera on another bridge nearby. Police had been slowing drivers at the other end, and it appeared everyone was heeding the warning. Apparently not! That was the only chance I had to capture anything compelling during this trip. There were no other safe places I could find to stop and film. You can see that accidents already had happened on the other bridge.
I came across this stuck 18 wheeler on the way home near Selma, Alabama. There were patches of slick spots like this all over the region. It was worse in the Birmingham/Tuscaloosa region, where like Atlanta, all roads were covered and impassable.